In the wake of historic wildfire and extreme weather events, a new report to the Board of Commissioners outlines novel strategies to address the worsening crisis of climate change. Members from the Advisory Committee on Sustainability & Innovation (ACSI) delivered their recommendations Tuesday, April 5 to the Board of Commissioners.
“In the last year and a half, we’ve seen multiple events that are nearly unprecedented: the 2020 wildfire, the ice storm last February that left hundreds of thousands without power; last summer’s deadly heat dome,” said Mara Gross, the 2021 ACSI Chair.
Recommendations include increasing Multnomah County’s tree canopy, addressing inequities in street safety, leveraging federal transportation funding for sustainable projects, reducing wood smoke and diesel emissions, uplifting our food system, and improving water health.
The briefing took place just days after the release of a new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report warning time is running out to meet United Nations climate targets. To meet those goals, the IPCC warned, it will take immediate and unprecedented action from every community.
“It’s important that we take your recommendations and really address the larger issues that we’re facing around the bigger issues of climate change and the things like heat events,” Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson told the presenters. Commissioner Vega Pederson has served as the board liaison to the Advisory Committee for the last five years.
In 2010, the Board created the Advisory Committee to promote sustainable policies and actions and to advise the county on regional, state or national sustainability policy matters. The group is composed of community delegates, who bring their expertise in sustainability to promote new ideas and best practices to Multnomah County.
Each year the Committee presents recommendations to the Board to guide the County and its programs in achieving its sustainability goals. The committee played a role in helping the County advocate for air quality improvements at the local and state levels, launching the state’s first property-assessed clean energy program, and developing the County’s Climate Action Plan.
“They’ve been flexible in thinking about new solutions and ways of thinking about the sustainability challenges we’re facing as the climate continues to change,” said Knowledge Murphy, a sustainability coordinator with the County’s Sustainability Office.
More than 40% of Multnomah County’s climate pollution comes from transportation. That makes transportation one of the most effective targets for affecting the climate while also improving health and safety, Gross said.
With $1.2 billion expected to flow into the region from the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the report urges the County to leverage those resources to invest in reliable, affordable, sustainable transit options. The report also encourages the County to oppose road expansion, and to continue conducting in-depth analysis of health impacts for freeway projects.
The report also notes the intersectionality of transportation issues. According to a report from Multnomah County’s REACH program, traffic injuries are the third leading cause of death in the County (7.9 per 100,000). The rate of injury is nearly double among Black people (13.9 per 100,000).
“There’s intersectionality in all that we do at the County, and that’s yet another example that is so important, and so powerful,” Commissioner Sharon Meieran said.
Climate and energy
The report urges Multnomah County to use the resources and skills at its disposal to prioritize the resilience, safety, and well-being of communities in the wake of climate change. The committee used a climate resilience lens, focusing on how the County’s support can be used to assist populations to withstand climate change, said Amanda Zuniga, the 2021 ACSI Co-Chair
In one example, Zuniga applauded the County’s Energy Assistance Program, which preserved access to utilities for community members unable to pay due to the pandemic. There is a link between climate and health, she said, and various socioeconomic factors have historically prevented BIPOC, low-income and other historically excluded communities from accessing these resources.
“This is life saving work when we think about the deadly heat dome in 2021 and our cold winters,” Zuniga said. “We call out to continue to advocate and prioritize this work through policy and County resources.”
Multnomah County can also help curb wood smoke pollution, the report said. Currently 3% of households in Multnomah County rely on wood burning as a heat source, Zuniga said. The County could optimize homes’ energy usage by helping them transition to clean energy options, such as heat pumps.
Mitigating diesel pollution is another priority. Multnomah County’s own data shows BIPOC communities are up to three times more likely to be exposed to diesel particulate matter compared to white residents. The County’s Clean Air Construction Procurement Standard is one attempt to address this, which aims to reduce diesel emissions on construction sites.
“The County has been a leader here,” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said. “I don’t think in the community at large, folks, see the County’s work here as clearly, or see the opportunities that we have. But the County really has been a leader in this space.”
Food and water
All living things need food and water, Zuniga said. The report looks at ways — traditional and modern —to create a more sustainable future for food and water systems. One major recommendation encourages decolonization of food and water sources, including renaming the Sauvie Island Bridge to honor the island’s original Indigenous inhabitants.
Noting the loss of agricultural land within the county over time, the report calls for sustainably cultivating land to grow food and create access to work for historically marginalized communities. The committee also urges leaders to improve food security by promoting a local approach and avoiding waste from farm fields, grocery stores, and restaurants.
Pesticides have also contributed to stormwater pollution, the report says, underscoring the need for stormwater treatment. Pollutants can enter waterways from roads and buildings and far too many storm drains offer no treatment at all, Zuniga told commissioners.
In regards to water, the Committee encourages prioritizing fish passages and culvert replacement in certain areas where fish populations are threatened. “I know there are several culverts in East County that have been replaced and we’re actually seeing fish where we’ve never seen fish before,” Commissioner Lori Stegmann said.
The Committee submitted its recommendations in a six-page letter to the Board: 2021 Advisory Committee on Sustainability & Innovation Board Letter.
In the coming weeks, the County plans to publish an after-action report evaluating its response on the 2021 extreme heat incident. The County is also preparing for the possibility of more extreme weather to come this summer, Chair Deborah Kafoury said.
“We are already planning for what could be another summer of extreme heat,” Chair Kafoury said, adding that Public Health, Emergency Management, and the Joint Office of Homeless Services are getting “ready to go before the next summer hits.”